Sunday, March 2, 2008

Locking Up the Immigrants...

I recommend to anyone reading this that you get your hands on this past week's New Yorker (March 3rd) for Margaret Talbot's report on the Don T. Hutto Residential Center, a privately run immigrant-detention facility in Texas. A converted minimum-security prison, Hutto, owned by the Corrections Corporation of America, now houses undocumented immigrants, many of them Middle Eastern asylum-seekers fleeing persecution from oppressive regimes in their home countries (in addition to your run-of-the-mill Latinos looking for a better way to put food on the table), and their families, in a shockingly misguided--if not downright sadistic--attempt to keep track of immigrants without documentation.

Because these prisons are run by private companies (whom the government pays), a number of complications present themselves. For one, gathering information about their interior practices can be particularly difficult. (Talbot points to CCA's recent denial of a Freedom of Information Act request to a sociologist studying the use force against inmates in private prisons; the CCA claimed that such information was "a business secret.") Additionally, the CCA is not required to hire people with any qualifications or expertise in child welfare or childcare--they are not licensed to offer childcare--and most of their employees have backgrounds in the prison system. There is also the plain truth that these companies are profiting off the imprisonment of immigrants. Since 2005, when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of Homeland Security officially ended their "catch-and-release" approach to undocumented immigrants (i.e. allowing immigrants caught without papers to roam free while awaiting court), CCA has enjoyed particularly robust revenues ("We feel very strong about the demand that is developing," C.E.O. John Furguson said).

The article offers various bewildering examples of authoritarian verve: children being denied toys, crayons, and stuffed animals; parents forbidden access to one another's cells, as well as access to their children during the night; disobedient parents being threatened with separation from their children. (Most of the article's accounts are based on interviews with ex-inmates of Hutto.) Conditions have improved since the CCA settled a lawsuit with the ACLU last year; however, as one ACLU attorney put it, "these are still prison walls." Regardless of how many hours children are allowed to run around outside (or go to classes), we still have the mind-blowing fact that immigrants seeking asylum--or seeking anything, for that matter--have been welcomed to the United States with a prison sentence.

What started as a simple recommendation seems to have turned into a much lengthier explanation than I had intended, and now I feel I have to say something insightful. Though I suppose I could express my revulsion adamantly, what can one say in reaction to this story that wouldn't sound banal? ("Inhumane!" "A betrayal of American values!" "Financial incentives have corrupted the immigration system!") And yet, there is a sizable group of people who see Hutto (and other similar facilities) not as outrageous affronts to any idiot's sense of decency, but as simply flawed--some of these are of the "Gotta play by the rules if you're gonna set foot in our country" set. I must say, this current method of dealing with undocumented immigrants and their families does seem to fit pretty nicely with that way of thinking about immigration. It always amazes me that anyone can think of illegal immigration as criminal--as if the twelve million illegal aliens currently residing here all suffer from the same brand of moral perversity. (To offer a rough perspective: there are 1.6 million prisoners in the US--and they comprise all sorts of criminal proclivities.)

I've really only scratched the surface of this article's disturbing revelations about the extent of the casual, regimented cruelty that seems to be the meat and potatoes of these internment camps, and the extent of the problem. Unfortunately, the article is not online, but perhaps I can find a way to get it to you. Right now it is too late, and I need to write about something vacuous. Perhaps I will, if I do not fall asleep.


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